W henever the Middle East peace process takes center stage, the spotlight is aimed at the settlement enterprise. Following his appointment last July as chief foreign envoy for the Yesha Council, Oded Revivi has assumed the leading role as the official political representative of the settlement movement to the international community. As mayor of Efrat since 2008, Revivi sees no contradiction between being a staunch advocate of Jewish settlement in Judea and Samaria and fostering coexistence and cooperation between Efrat and its neighboring Palestinian villages. Revivi was head of the Yesha delegation that attended President Trump’s inauguration in January, and has been watching subsequent developments closely to try and get a read on what Trump may have in store.

Where do you see the starkest difference between what you sensed from the new administration at the inauguration and what you have heard since?

Back then there was more anticipation. As time moves forward, I can’t say that the expectations have been killed, because there weren’t specific expectations, but the president has come out with some extremely encouraging statements, or chosen some words which indicate a completely different approach. I was invited to meet his special envoy to the Middle East, Jason Greenblatt. This type of [high-level] meeting never took place in the past between an American administration with heads of communities from Judea and Samaria. So in that respect I’m encouraged. I won’t say satisfied, but a lot of the expectation has been filled in that respect.

What worries you about the new administration?

I’m not worried. I’m more speechless than worried because it is unclear if the administration has a plan for the Middle East, and whether that plan involves Israel. I’ve been following President Trump’s speeches starting from the inauguration and the theme that’s been very clear is America First. That is his number one interest, which is completely legitimate. When he talks about a big deal for the Middle East, some people interpret it as something with Israel in the center. I’m not sure. Maybe the big deal he’s talking about is the need to build a big coalition to strike Iran hard. Israel’s role in that kind of big deal is “don’t cause too much noise to rock the boat.” I’m not sure he has something up his sleeve to resolve the conflict with the Palestinians, or whether he’s not interested because that’s not America First.

Is this something you are working on verifying, and if so who are you speaking to?

There are meetings and discussions. There is a channel through which messages get conveyed. It’s composed of all sorts of different people from different backgrounds. Those who need to be involved and aware of it are aware. These will only be successful if they are kept discreet, but yes, there is definitely a different attitude in that respect than we were used to. In Obama’s term, my accusation was that Obama was looking at the situation through a satellite dish and suggesting ideas without understanding the reality. I can definitely say that now, we have enough people on the other side of the line who either know the reality or are willing to listen and accept feedback.

As mayor of Efrat, a settlement over the Green Line, is there any practical difference to you if a US president calls the settlements an impediment to peace or just says I’d like you to hold off for a little while?

I could answer that question by saying yes and no. Since Prime Minister Netanyahu’s White House visit there haven’t been any new tenders published, or marketing of new properties. There is an understanding that Prime Minister Netanyahu is trying to comply with the request to hold back. On the other hand, anybody who speaks a bit of English understands that “hold back on settlements for a while” is a completely different request than not one more brick. The amount of times I have heard Prime Minister Netanyahu tell me personally that President Obama demanded not one more brick is not just a difference in terminology, it is a completely different approach.

Have you been in touch with Jason Greenblatt since your meeting in Washington?

I prefer to leave that between him and me. He specifically asked that what we do, we do confidentially.

Are you close with the new ambassador David Friedman?

I’ve met him a few times. His acts, his heart, speaks for itself. I think it’s a very heartwarming nomination regarding the State of Israel, but we sometimes exaggerate the symbolism of these nominations. An ambassador is the connecting person between the policymakers. It is questionable as to what the role of ambassadors are in these times when leaders talk to one another directly and they don’t need the messenger to deliver the telegram that was sent to the embassy.

Efrat is one of the most upscale and in-demand communities in Yesha, but despite recent headlines that housing starts in Yesha have increased 40% last year, we’re starting from a very low base that’s been impacted by various construction freezes. Do these types of headlines frustrate you?

Yes, and the lack of knowledge that you are referring to is so broad that people don’t even realize that the building freeze was not an invention of President Obama. It was a specific understanding between President Bush and Ariel Sharon [in the 2003 “road map”]. The American administration made a specific demand to Prime Minister Sharon, although they phrased it differently. They phrased it to stop encouraging Jews from living over the Green Line. The implication of that demand had a few outcomes. Number one, the 7% income tax discount for people living in Judea and Samaria was canceled to eliminate a financial incentive to cross the Green Line. The special loans, grants, and lower mortgage rates to encourage buying in Judea and Samaria were all canceled. But the most drastic measure was that the Israeli government stopped publishing public tenders for selling land.

But some construction continued, especially in the chareidi cities of Beitar and Kiryat Sefer.

Well, there were other exemptions. One was Maaleh Adumim, at least up until 2007. The Americans didn’t look into all the details. They thought Maaleh Adumim was part of Jerusalem. Then in 2007, E1 [the plan to build contiguously between Jerusalem and Maaleh Adumim] comes up. Suddenly, the Americans see the maps and they understand that it’s a completely different territory than Jerusalem, so building freezes in E1 and Maaleh Adumim. The chareidim were also exempted because there would be no coalition without the chareidim and they said we can’t have a building freeze because the needs of our community are so great. When President Obama walked into the White House, he says, “I don’t understand what happened.” There was an understanding between the Israeli government and the American administration, yet the numbers show that there’s an increase of 30 % in the population of Judea and Samaria. How was that managed? Our answer was “E1 and the chareidim.” But the major difference was that the Americans didn’t understand there were different categories of land. There are the cities, which include Efrat, where the government owns and markets the land. In the regional councils, the Jewish Agency governs a lot of their land and don’t go through the government. So that’s how we could overcome it [the building freeze] and that’s how building took place in more remote areas. Obama realizes that and he says, “not one more brick.” If you want to lay one more brick, explain why. He put everybody in one basket.

Bricks were still laid anyway, correct?

Yes, there was some relief. Efrat got building permits in 2013 because Tzipi Livni and Naftali Bennett were in the same government. Livni wanted to restart the peace negotiations. To do so, she said we need to build trust, and to build trust, let’s release terrorists. Naftali Bennett said not while I’m in the government. And like always in Israeli politics, there was a compromise. They released terrorists and allowed building permits. But overall, the policy of the president of the United States was a veto over what happens in these communities. You mentioned Beitar. Go to Beitar and look at all the families living in “garages” that have no windows because they’re all underground. They need pumps to get the sewage from their toilets into the sewage pipes. There is big demand from growing families, who are baruch Hashem having kids who are now getting married and want to buy apartments. Here in Efrat [across the highway from Beitar] when I bought here, property was cheaper than in Jerusalem. Today prices here are more expensive than some neighborhoods of Jerusalem. It’s crazy. That’s how much demand there is. That’s how much we’re still restrained by the American administration. And that’s why we’re waiting to see what will happen after Trump’s visit.

Trump looks like he’s following his predecessor down the Oslo path, even if he doesn’t use the term two-state solution. Can you envision redrawing borders in Judea and Samaria so that all Jewish communities remain in Israel, while all the Arab communities remain in a Palestinian entity, leaving both room for natural growth? Or is that an utter impossibility?

There is some sort of contradiction within your question. I will agree with the latter. I can draw a reality where Jews and Palestinians carry on living here, peacefully. To reach that reality, we need a lot of courageous people, and a lot of brave and powerful leaders who will be able to provide security to their people. It’s not the reality in which we live today. The idea of drawing some sort of imaginary line is my accusation against Obama of seeing things from a satellite dish. Not understanding the proximity, the complexity, and the issues of natural resources and the environment. There’s not too much land here for maneuver. And since I don’t believe we can kick anyone out of their homes — I don’t think it’s right — we need to find ways that we can live one alongside the other.

Efrat is a model in that regard. How have you managed to maintain decent relations with your Arab neighbors?

You’re right. But I don’t think we’re an exception. What you have described in your question is the norm. The problem is, and I’m telling you this because you’re a reporter, but I think you know that the media only sells when they have extreme cases. Drive up and down our roads, go shopping at Rami Levy, and you see the Jewish population mixed within the Arab population. Efrat is a city of 10,000 people. Fifty percent are under age 21 and fifty percent are over 21. Those who are over 21 mainly commute to work in Jerusalem. Every morning, 1,000 Palestinians come to work in Efrat. I’m afraid to count how many adult Jews are left at that hour; I might be surprised to find that in the morning Efrat has more Palestinians than Jews. But that’s the norm. It doesn’t make headlines because nothing extreme comes out of that. The challenge is to try and empower the large, sane, normal majority, who are usually also the silent majority, as opposed to the small, extreme, violent, loud minority. It’s a battle for normality. That’s what we’re trying to do here.

Can it be exported elsewhere?

There is a challenge in taking what manages to work locally and bringing it into the national arena. And there is a challenge of overcoming the extremists who have a financial incentive to see the conflict carrying on. The biggest challenge is how you overcome those extremists. In that respect, it’s true all over the world. There are people who profit over conflict and have an interest in seeing these conflicts carrying on in different places in the world. This is just one of those. (Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 661)